Rating The Races: Part Four

Dover- Ryan Newman had this one in hand from the drop of the green flag. He led 325 laps and beat second place Mark Martin by over eight seconds, an eternity in racing. The image that will stick with most fans from this event is the normally robotically precise Matt Kenseth spinning onto pit road and slamming the tire barriers hard enough the 17 car almost vaulted them. A sheepish Kenseth said it was the stupidest thing he'd ever done in a race car. Robby Gordon chimed in it would only be about the 2009th stupidest thing he'd ever done in a race. This race gets a D and it's for dull not Dover.

Talladega- The circuit returned to Talladega and Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to victory lane. A cosmic rift was mended and all was right in the universe again. Well almost. An elated Earnhardt let loose a vernacular term for manure in Victory Lane and found himself slapped with a 25 point penalty by the manners-nannies who run NASCAR circa 2004. It was all anyone could talk about it that week as various media outlets decided how to report Earnhardt's comment that landed him in hot water. As far as I'm concerned the fine was a bunch of shit. The race itself was somewhat better and gets a B. Earnhardt charged from tenth to first in four laps in a manner reminiscent of his father's final Cup win also scored at Talladega. Elliott Sadler rolled his car over a few times to keep the gore geeks in the stands happy.

Kansas- In a year of races that failed to live up to expectations Kansas was different. Nobody expected much of a race at Kansas but against all odds there was actually a very exciting race. Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd waged a spirited but clean battle for the win even though both drivers and teams really needed a victory particularly to get their sponsors some exposure after failing to make the playoffs. This race gets an A with special recognition for its "most improved" honors.

Charlotte- Kasey Kahne had a dominant car leading 207 of the first 267 laps but when he blew a tire and hit the wall suddenly the race was wide open. Star-crossed Mark Martin and fellow title contender Ryan Newman were battling for second when Jimmy Spencer and Brendan Gaughan wrecked directly ahead of them. Newman and Martin's cars were badly damaged. Kurt Busch narrowly avoided the same fate as Busch took to the grass wide open to avoid the wreck but Busch saved the car and didn't even lose a position. Jimmie Johnson completed the Charlotte season sweep beating out his teammate Jeff Gordon whose car had been torn up in an early race incident. Busch left Charlotte comfortably in the points lead. This race rates a B-.

Martinsville- The day of the Martinsville race a terrible tragedy befell the NASCAR community. A plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports crashed into the side of a mountain in poor visibility conditions killing all those aboard including four members of the Hendrick family. In light of that terrible human tragedy the race that weekend and indeed this entire season pale by comparison. Thoughts and prayers continue to go out to those who lost loved ones that tragic morning.

As far as the race the newly resurfaced Martinsville track was a major disappointment as was the event. There was some action on the final restart as teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace battled over second place. Neither would yield and it cost them both a shot at the win. Jimmie Johnson drove on to an uncontested win only to learn of the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen his team and friends that morning. I choose not to rate this race. In the big picture it's just not important to do so.

Atlanta- Would Hollywood have bought a script where a driver whose team suffered a terrible tragedy the previous week bounced back to win his second race in a row? Mark Martin dominated the race but in the end it was his own teammate, Greg Biffle, so desperate to get a lap back on a late restart he towed Jimmie Johnson right past Martin. Brian France's flawed playoff system was salvaged to an extent that same afternoon as Kurt Busch, who'd been running away with the championship, blew an engine and finished 42nd. Had Busch managed to finish in the top 10 that day as he did in the other playoff races the so called "Chase for the Championship" would have been a rout. Some might even wonder if NASCAR dumped a ten pound sack of metal shavings into the oil tank of Busch's car that morning in an attempt to get their ugly baby of a points system to win a beauty pageant. Dale Earnhardt's title hopes also took what were in retrospect a fatal blow that afternoon. Late in the race while solidly in the top 10 Earnhardt got into Carl Edwards and wrecked out of the race. While clearly disappointed to the edge of despair in a classy move Earnhardt absolved Edwards of all blame for the wreck after the race. Otherwise Edwards would probably be in a witness protection program currently. The race gets a C+ as Johnson won his third straight race to move into second in the points.

Phoenix- NASCAR dodged dicey weather to get the race in on Sunday to the great relief of the crews who were approaching terminal burnout. Earnhardt Jr. had the dominant car but pit strategies kept shuffling the deck. Finally Earnhardt managed to retake the lead from Jeff Gordon with ten laps to on his way to victory lane. After winning Earnhardt seemed a bit subdued in winner's circle as if avoiding uttering any inappropriate words was more important to him that the win. Welcome to the Brave New World of NASCAR.

Darlington- It was the Southern 500 in name only. Like most people I don't want to die but I'd always expected and hoped the Southern 500 would outlast me. Watching the last running of the fall classic on NASCAR's greatest track about broke my heart. It literally felt like a death in the family. The first third of the race featured more passes for the lead than the entirety of most races this season. In the end Jimmie Johnson has the strongest car and in a desperate attempt to outrun the 48 Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne chose not to pit with the rest of the pack late in the race, an almost unheard of strategy at the abrasive Darlington track. The strategy didn't work. Johnson made quick work of both drivers and went on to win his eighth race of the season. The last Southern 500 gets an A.

Homestead- The "Chase" hype reached such a frightful din it was deafening to anyone with a lick of common sense. If you bought into NBC's marketing theatrics you probably still think you saw something special rather than a largely pedestrian race. Kurt Busch and the 97 team did everything they could do to lose the title managing to break a wheel. But the suspense of the afternoon died as Busch made his way back into the top 10 dooming the title chances of the other Chasers ahead of him in the running order. Lost in all the chase hype Greg Biffle made a brilliant pass for the lead on a late restart to take his second victory of the season. (Which is precisely two more races than the entire RCR Cup organization managed this year. The bigger they are the harder they fall.) With a whimper not a bang the 2004 Cup season came to an end. NASCAR officials seemed to be delighted with the way the season went. The cell phone company folks are said to be well pleased as well as they spent their first year standing on the sidelines in befuddled silence with their hands in their pockets trying to figure out what was going on. Fans by and large were left disappointed at the quality of racing. The Homestead races gets an H for hopelessly hyped hysterics and hyperbole.

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